People who practice Complimentary and Alternative Medicine have long used probiotics to treat various illnesses. Recently, however, they have been in the limelight, especially by manufacturers touting the health benefits of foods that contain probiotics.

If you have Crohn's disease, do probiotics help?

What are probiotics?

Our intestinal tract is home to millions of bacterial microflora. Good bacteria help keep us healthy, however, disease or pathogens can disrupt this natural process. We know that in people with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), their immune system has a faulty response to beneficial microflora, reacting as if the organisms were foreign objects. Researchers find that the sections of the gut with the highest bacteria count are the same areas most affected by IBD.

Probiotics are live microorganisms we ingest through food or supplements. They may be effective in preventing or managing Crohn's disease. You can find probiotics in certain foods, including live-culture yogurt, some milk products and beverages and fermented soy products (such as miso or tempeh). You can also purchase probiotic dietary supplements.

Here are just a few of the many reported benefits of probiotics. 

  • Reduces lacto-intolerance
  • Reduces diarrhea, particularly if caused by rotaviruses
  • Offsets side effects from antibiotics (antibiotics can kill friendly bacteria as well as bad bacteria)
  • Protects against cancer and pathogens
  • Shortens duration of intestinal infections by the Clostridium difficile bacteria, which is of particular concern to IBD patients

There are many strains of bacteria and the effect in humans varies depending on the strain, so there is limited clinical data to support the health benefits of probiotics. The research looks promising, however. In one study, for example, Crohn's patients who took probiotics and prebiotics (food ingredients that support good bacteria in the gut) in combination went into remission.

Probiotics are considered food products, not drugs, and there are few regulatory guidelines to assess health claims. This also makes it difficult to make scientific claims about the value of probiotics.

The bottom line

The potential health benefits of probiotics are compelling and researchers are seriously studying their value in treating diseases such as Crohn's. The National Institutes of Health has launched the Human Microbiome Project to characterize human microbiota and its role in human health and disease. And the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (one of the NIH institutes) currently has many clinical trials and studies underway to further our understanding of probiotics. If you'd like to add probiotics to your Crohn's management toolbox, do your own research and be sure to discuss it with your physician.